As part of its newfound dedication to city beautification and the burgeoning tourism industry, the city built a Municipal Recreation Pier in 1913, just ten feet north of the Electric Pier at Second Avenue North. The Electric Pier was torn down the following year.
The new Municipal Pier, the city’s first foray into a publicly owned recreation pier, was a sign of things to come in the blossoming resort town. A flurry of new building activity commenced in 1912 and iconic landmarks like the La Plaza Theater on Central Avenue (demolished in 1957), the Women’s Town Improvement Association (still standing across from William’s Park), and the unique Open Air Post office on 4th Street were created. The world’s first commercial airline flight took place over Tampa Bay in 1914, and Major League Baseball arrived that same year, remaining in the city for spring training for nearly a century.
The advent of spring training in St. Petersburg was stewarded by ambitious Mayor Al Lang, who unabashedly thrust the city into the national spotlight as a tourist destination. No longer just the business of enterprising railroad men and real estate agents, promotion of the city as a “perpetual playground” was now an official initiative of the city.
Real estate and tourism boomed and the city expanded westward until the economic downturn of 1917-18 put the brakes on the frenzy. The lull was short-lived, however. In 1919 the city, and the entire state of Florida, found themselves on the brink of a spectacular boom that would leave an indelible imprint on both the built environment and the popular history of the Sunshine City and the Sunshine State.
Death at the Pier
St. Petersburg’s Piers have historically been the location of fun and frolicking. Not so for two unlucky souls who lost their lives while enjoying two of the city’s beloved pastimes: swimming and fishing.
In 1913, W.H. Flagg, visiting from Battle Creek, Michigan, died in a freak accident on the Railroad Pier. Fishing from the pier was technically prohibited, but the rule was regularly flouted by residents and visitors alike. As Flagg was fishing he was struck and killed by the unusual sail-powered ice cart used by Hibbs Fishing Company. The cart, a novelty beloved by tourists, moved ice up and down the pier under wind-driven sails. After the tragic accident with Flagg, the company reverted to their earlier practice of using mule-drawn ice carts.
An even more tragic accident took place nearly ten years later in 1922, when a beautiful college-bound girl, Dorothy McClatchie, was viciously attacked by a shark in the waters off the Railroad Pier. Dorothy and her best friend, Mary Buhner, members of the state-championship swimming team at St. Petersburg High, were enjoying a leisurely swim when Dorothy’s bodily suddenly jerked and she screamed out “I’m bitten!” Moments later she cried out “Oh, my foot’s gone!”
A panicked, yet heroic Mary, towed her best friend to shore while trying to flag down passing sailboats. But Dorothy was doomed, and as she faded in her friend’s arms she said “Kiss me Mary, I’m gone.”